Insurance Policies: The Grandparents of Contractual Black Holes01 Jan 2017
In their recent article, The Black Hole Problem in Commercial Boilerplate, Professors Stephen Choi, Mitu Gulati, and Robert Scott identify a phenomenon found in standardized contracts they describe as “contractual black holes.” The concept of black holes comes from theoretical physics. Under the original hypothesis, the gravitational pull of a black hole is so strong that once light or information is pulled past an event horizon into a black hole, it cannot escape. In recent years, the theory has been reformulated and now the hypothesis is that some information can escape, but it is so degraded that it is virtually useless. In their article, Choi, Gulati, and Scott apply the black hole concept to certain standardized contractual boilerplate provisions. Although the focus of their article is on the contractual black hole nature of pari passu clauses that are used in sovereign debt contracts, Choi, Gulati, and Scott note that “[s]tandard insurance contracts appear to be another area with the potential for terms that have lost meaning.” They are correct that insurance policies are an area in which contractual black holes would appear quite likely to develop.
In this essay, to test the hypothesis that insurance policies potentially are, or contain, contractual black holes, four policy provisions found in commercial insurance policies are considered: 1) “Sue and Labor” Clauses, 2) “Ensuing Loss” Clauses, 3) “Non-Cumulation” Clauses, and 4) the “Sudden and Accidental” Pollution Exclusion. An examination of these provisions demonstrates that some policy provisions have become contractual black holes, some provisions are only apparent contractual black holes, and other provisions on their way to becoming contractual black holes were saved before the original meaning of such provisions crossed the event horizon.